Top 5 Climate Reasons To Reduce Driving, Even With Electric Vehicles

Sprawl and EVs still have significant carbon costs

California and other jurisdictions have been moving to reduce vehicle miles traveled (VMT) as a climate solution. Yet some pro-sprawl interests question whether this is necessary, given the advent of electric vehicles. It’s fair to ask: if all vehicles are “zero emission,” do we really need to care any more about how much driving we do, in terms of the climate impact?

The answer is unequivocally yes, and here are the top five reasons:

  1. Gas cars will be with us for a long time. As the California Air Resources Board noted in the 2022 scoping plan appendix, even with a goal to have only zero-emission vehicles sold in the state by 2035, approximately 30 percent of light-duty vehicles on the road in 2045 will still burn fossil fuels. The less of that we burn through reduced driving, the better.
  2. Clean electricity generation still has a carbon cost. Even if we move to 100% electric vehicles, that energy has to come from somewhere. And if it’s large-scale solar or wind facilities, they come with their own energy inputs to manufacture, as well as land use impacts to deploy. For example, some studies conservatively estimate it takes 10 acres of solar panels to generate one megawatt of electricity, an hour of which could potentially power about 3,500 driving miles collectively. Using that land for electricity and not food production, carbon sequestration, or open space comes with significant climate costs.
  3. Low-VMT development patterns reduce carbon pollution from buildings. As CARB noted, infill development (as opposed to sprawl served by publicly-subsidized highways) uses an estimated 10 to 20 percent less residential energy, due to smaller unit types, sizes, and locations — not to mention reduced water use from less outdoor irrigation requirements, which come with their own energy footprint to ship and treat the water.
  4. Reducing sprawl and VMT preserves open space and working lands as a carbon sink. To achieve carbon neutrality by mid century or sooner, we’re going to need to bury carbon. Natural and working lands are a key part of that equation, as they provide opportunities to bury carbon in soils through natural processes. Developing these lands instead for high VMT sprawl can permanently foreclose that opportunity.
  5. Electric vehicles come with their own carbon footprint and pollution costs. While dramatically better for the environment than fossil fuel-powered cars, EVs still require significant energy to manufacture, and their use on the road can create particulate matter pollution through wear on the tires and brakes and by kicking up particulate matter from the road. They also require large-scale mining of lithium, graphite and other minerals, which creates local environmental and energy impacts.

I could also mention non-climate reasons for wanting to reduce VMT, such as the equity benefits of building more housing closer to jobs and services in order to reduce transportation costs that disproportionately hurt low-income residents. But I’ll stick with the climate benefits for now.

Overall, we do need to electrify 100% of our transportation modes from a climate perspective. But we also need to simultaneously reduce the demand for transportation by building smarter and better communities in walkable, affordable, and transit-friendly areas.

Without that reduced driving, our climate goals will be much harder to achieve.

Reader Comments

15 Replies to “Top 5 Climate Reasons To Reduce Driving, Even With Electric Vehicles”

  1. Dan, your most recent posts are the most important to date, now how do we get 8 Billion humans to make the right things happen fast enough?

  2. Thanks for at least hinting that EV’s come with significant unplanned and unmitigated impacts, including toxic manufacture and disposal of batteries.
    It’s clear that your overall plan is not just to penalize the working class who must drive to work from distant affordable housing, but also a more sinister agenda to limit mobility for the 99% of the population you plan to force and trap in your creepy “transit villages”– huge, ugly condo and apartment developments near stinky public transit to and from downtown urban areas. Oh yes, we now get the predictable anti-car rhetoric that even expensive EV’s must go!
    You also ignore that those jobs are also disappearing with the sudden realization by “tech” industries of the obvious outcomes of overhiring and overpaying millennials for tech jobs that benefit no one and are now disappearing, along with the decline in income and inflation affecting everyone else. Your false path doesn’t address these realities, which makes its class prejudice even more glaring.

    1. You missed the part of my post where I discuss boosting housing for all income ranges closer to transit. More supply lowers prices, and it’s less of an economic burden on lower-income people not to have to pay to own and fuel a vehicle, or at least have to drive so far. But your other point is that urban living is not for everyone (though consumer preference surveys show the vast majority of people highly value living walking distance to services and retail, and those neighborhoods are some of the most expensive in California). So for those who can afford a sprawl home and pay for the environmental damage they’re doing, I’m all for it.

      1. You provide no evidence and there is none that increased supply lowers housing costs of the hideous “transit village” developments or any other housing. And where is your citation to the “consumer preference surveys”? Your screed targeted at “those who can afford a “sprawl home” does not equate to “environmental damage” they should “pay for.” And again your personal hate message to the vast majority of people who prefer a home with a yard and parking reveals your prejudice. Housing costs are much higher per square foot and value much less in urban density development areas than in suburban areas. Not sorry to puncture your fact-free rhetoric and knee-jerk ire.

        1. Consumer preference surveys on valuing walkability:

          Studies on higher prices consumers will pay for walkability:

          As to your point that increased supply won’t lower housing prices (not “costs,” which is a separate issue), you might consider learning basic economic theory.

  3. You might try reading your own cites, which support my position not yours. Those who are “willing to pay” for density urban lifestyles are not those who can pay for them. And the vast majority prefer single family detached homes with yards, which are unaffordable in urban areas. That’s where your fantasy collides with reality.
    And you might try learning basic reading, logic and common civility instead of your hatred and intolerance of anyone who doesn’t subscribe to your cult of “sustainable” electricity supply and fiction of affordable urban housing.

  4. Our “Right Type, Right Place” report summarizes the types of housing we would need to grow sustainably and equitably, and they include compact homes near transit and services, not necessarily exclusively apartments or condos (although those are severely under-built in California relative to demand). The surveys show people will gladly trade away lot sizes and yards for living in a walkable, transit-friendly community. And basic Econ 101: boost supply, lower prices.

  5. Given that most people still prefer a SFH, i think the survey is less significant. (Also, i question the results relevance to the LA region – i dont see how parks did not make the list of scarce resources? Plus, online surveys to me are suspect.) Once people find a home they can afford and actually desire, of course they’d also like a coffee shop. So what?

    Urban living can be acceptable if you have money, not to mention, a weekend home. Otherwise, basically its not that great. In our increasingly unequal society, this is unlikely to change soon.

    I dont blame “urbanists” for all this, but they lose credibility when they ignore reality, or pretend that they actually know how to fix it. Where’s the proof? Whenever i ask one of these types to name a place that has solved these problems, they say Berlin or Singapore! Please. You’re not helping yourselves with this happytalk.

    And btw, no its not so simple as supply and demand.

    I am on a phone so pls excuse my errors. I will have to look at the infill study later. I am really only speaking up bc – slthough i dont think it is the posters intent – ther is in fact a push to try to force people to live a certain way.

    And of course that makes us angry. Esp since i do not believe these sacrifices are necessary. It feels like someone is trying to flog us peons. Well i dont agree to be flogged just for a 10 or 20% benefit! Yeah, no. We can find another way to arrange ourselves thats green. Americans arent going to sit home to suit you.

    We do need to de-carb though. ; )

  6. The unfortunate truth is that drivers, especially those with the power to purchase, do not care about the environment. Regardless of what sort of environmentally friendly alternatives are available they will continue to burn fuel regardless of whether the fuel is extracted or grown. They also prefer to stand in the way of the future by hiding the fact that they prefer what they are used to. And as long as most drivers are unaware of the great forms of transportation and environmentally friendly alternatives available to them, they will not purchase the products that will help their future. For most drivers, placing the environment on the backburner is their best choice. Thank you for your time and consideration. -Amir

  7. I am looking at the report, yet I see some issues which make me question its worth, and I am only on page 5.

    Your definition of “infill” is questionable, since being “near” transit doesn’t mean anyone will use it. Are you aware that the trends in LA have been going the wrong way for *decades?* I mean, this to me rather undermines all of this report.

    I don’t see a “no growth” alternative scenario here. You are just assuming that builds will equal some bogus target the state made up. First of all, is that even going to conceivably happen? (I think probably not.) Are their projections right? (Probably not.)

    I am sensing that this whole report is kind of made-up. You picked the assumptions you wanted to get the result you wanted, didn’t you? What is the point of reports like this? “If we lived in fairyland, we would all have wings…” Yes, but …

    I mean, certainly if every new resident to California rode a bike exclusively, that would probably be better than if each new resident to California instead drove a hummer. So what? Neither of those situations is going to occur, and even if it did, we still don’t know who moved into their previous home, and what *they* are driving. So, as to emissions, we really don’t know, do we?

    I will keep going and I’ll comment again if I see *anything* that I find persuasive. But so far this is looking pretty baked.

  8. So, I just wanted to say, I hope I didn’t sound cross before, you are probably a very nice person.

    Now that I’m a little further in, I can see that yes indeed, this report is pure Yimby propaganda. But that too does not represent a character indictment. You just see the world very differently.

    I don’t think your Target scenario is going to happen. Even if it did, ghg emissions aren’t going to go down much, because – and please listen here – people in LA pretty much don’t use transit. Okay? Do you understand that? Are you aware of ridership trends? Is any of this getting through to you? It almost doesn’t matter where you put your imaginary new housing here. Sorry, but this really seems like nonsense.

    Our Neighborhood Voices.

  9. The purpose of the study was to create a variety of scenarios, including a business-as-usual one (i.e. continued local restrictions on new growth, specifically bans on apartment buildings near transit) and a “stretch” one that could policy makers could aim for. Contrary to your statement here, we did not know what we were going to get when we modeled a variety of housing types within a few miles of transit to meet state-estimated future population growth (since revised downwards as high housing prices have chased people out of state). This “stretch” scenario may not be entirely market feasible, meaning some of these locations may not pencil for developers to build these units, But in most cases the barriers are purely political (i.e. local governments banning any dense housing within their jurisdiction).

  10. Hmm, well – and I should say, I’m no development expert, I just observe what I seem to see happening in the LA area – you can build all the housing you want “within a few miles” of “transit” (just that word is a whole subject … ) – it won’t make much difference to emissions.

    Did you know, LA Metro doesn’t build parking at their stations, for the most part? It’s almost like they don’t want people to use it. And see the LAT front page today. I mean, sure, maybe decades from now, people might use the trains. That is sort of possible. If we completely change who we are as a society, that is.

    I got to the part where it says that the study was meant to calm down the trade unionists.

    All I have to say about that is, there are plenty of totally useful things our skilled tradespeople could be doing besides building new housing (the vast majority of which will just house the already well-housed, in some minor shuffling, and even maybe shelter some money for foreign money launderers).

    They could be retrofitting for solar, renovating existing homes, and otherwise helping us build resilience. They could be doing all these things in commercial areas too. I don’t get the feeling that there is a lack of things that need work. Those other jobs just don’t have the Urban Growth Machine backing them.

    Moreover, where do you get the idea that there is too much regulation on apartments near “transit?” This is not the case here in LA, by any means. (And again, it isn’t really “transit.”) Yet we have lots of vacant fancy units. (There already exists some millions of zoned unit potential here. Including in commercial areas.)

    Are you worried about the parking minimums? I didn’t agree with Friedman’s bill but I’ll be interested to see if there turns out to be an increased market for no-parking units. Perhaps you feel like Uber and Lyft have made the world better – I don’t.

    Wouldn’t it make more sense to just have a refundable carbon tax?

    I’m sorry if I have sounded too cranky. As an LA person, I will say it is offensive to read that there is this plan to shoe-horn even more people here, when we are barely managing as it is. (Perhaps you are not familiar with this region.) The idea that we should proceed to build on every remaining vacant inch of land, when the area is already an under-parked heat island much of the year (once you aren’t at the coast), is abhorrent. You know, insert cliche here [ ] about Sacramento pols. I can’t *wait* for the supermajority to be gone. (Ironically perhaps, Friedman is one of the few I can stand. She does at least think for herself.)

    However, I also do not want workers to go without jobs, so to that extent at least, I can see why this report was done. Yet it seems to me that our state is heading down the wrong path. I guess we’ll find out.

  11. Hi Professor! I see that you have an op-ed in the LAT today.

    Before I jump all over it, again let me say that you seem like a very nice person. In fact, you seem almost incredibly naive and optimistic – usually, I like these traits. (I’m not sure about them in a policy wonk though.)

    Plus, maybe you will turn out to be right and I will be wrong, in the long run. (It doesn’t seem early to me, but then, it wouldn’t I suppose.)

    Here’s the main thing I don’t understand. Are you incredibly honest, or are you in fact *dis*honest?

    Because from where I sit, it seems like you are admitting that the entire rail system was either a) a mistake or b) a real estate scam (which some of us have believed for years – and I myself go back and forth – I don’t like to believe worst of people). (There’s a third choice too but you may not like it.)

    This seems like an *extraordinary* thing to admit. It’s a real headscratcher.

    You seem to admit that absent a vast increase in density near train stations, the system will never “thrive,” as you put it. (I don’t think it will thrive no matter how much housing you put there, but we’ll have to see.)

    In other words, this rail system was not built to serve Los Angeles. It was built to serve the Urban Growth Machine, ie Big Real Estate, ie Wall Street, ie the 1%. It was *not* built for the actual people or the actual city, but for a whole other regime that doesn’t exist yet.

    Aren’t you a little embarrassed by that? I don’t get you at all. (Like I said, you seem nice.)

    And also, why do you complain about parking near stations? Don’t you want anyone to use the trains? Because the third option to the two choices above is *fraud:* the rail system was *knowingly* built not to serve Angelenos. It was deliberately created knowing it would never be much used.

    This is (mildly) shocking to me. It’s funny to see it in black and white in the morning paper.

    As for Sunset and Wilcox, the nearest train station is a half mile away. Trust me when I say, it’s not safe to walk that at night, even if one has the extra time. (And I used to actually use transit sometimes, pre-covid. Only during the daytime, of course. I don’t carry a gun. To be honest though, I might not feel safe even parking at a train station, let alone using the train.)

    I don’t see any prospect that safety and cleanliness issues will be addressed. As a society, we don’t have a consensus on order and chaos. I’ve never thought much of the Metro Board (not that I could name them), so, in all odds, this will not happen. I mean, you do agree that being realistic is important, don’t you? (Do you?)

    I agree with one thing – the buses still work and that is where the focus should be (and always should have been).

    I am writing to you here, long after everyone’s gone, because I don’t know if you are exposed to these critiques otherwise. (I doubt if the LAT will print them, though I do much admire the LAT letterwriters as a group.) I’m going to see if I can find a copy of your book – I’m curious about it now.

    Your planet sounds like a very nice place to live, I hope I get to visit some day.

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About Ethan

Ethan Elkind is the Director of the Climate Change and Business Program, with a joint appointment at UC Berkeley School of Law and UCLA School of Law. In this capacity, h…

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About Ethan

Ethan Elkind is the Director of the Climate Change and Business Program, with a joint appointment at UC Berkeley School of Law and UCLA School of Law. In this capacity, h…

READ more